You know how sometimes you need a story that reflects the darkness of a cold sunless winter day? A story so covered in gritty loathsomeness that it’s devoid of all hope and light? A story that doesn’t just wallow in darkness, but embraces it like a long dead lover? I’ve got just the book you’re looking for to curl up with on those bleak winter nights.
The Monster of Elendhaven is a masterwork in dark gothic fantasy by Shirley Jackson award nominated debut author Jennifer Giesbrecht. A wonderfully lush and gruesome fairy tale with Poe overtones and a little old gods from the deep Lovecraftian sensibility thrown in for good measure. The main characters are monsters of different sorts that are irrevocably drawn together by forces unknown. Odds are, even as twisted and sick as they are, you’ll fall in love with Elendhaven’s monsters just as surely as they fall in love/hate with each other.
The plot and the plotting.
Hundreds of years ago the North Pole was ripped asunder by dark magic. Five centuries later, nestled in the black poisoned waters of the northern polar sea, the polluted city of Elendhaven metastasizes. This is where the creature Johann was… born? Created? Or perhaps spawned is a more proper term. For Johann is far more than a mere man. He is a monster; birthed on the sharp rocks at the edge of the freezing tainted sea and lives and hunts in Elendhaven’s soot-covered shadows. His only impulse, to survive and to kill. Both of which he does extremely well.
That is until Johann meets (okay, stalks and then tries to kill) one Florian Leickenbloom, a fine young upstanding member of the community who also happens to be an illegal magician with a cryptic and macabre past. This meeting will change both their lives, intertwining them in ways unexpected and unforeseen. Florian’s grim past leaves him craving revenge, and Johann may be the one person who is able to give it to him. The world would be wise to beware.
Never was a story of more woe than this of the monster Johann and his dandy Florian.
If you’re wondering whether or not this is a love story, it definitely isn’t. Although, it still gets a bloody LGBTQ stamp of approval, especially if you like your LGBTQ characters a little more on the twisted side. It’s a story of obsession, revenge, and maybe just a touch of destiny. It’s weird, wild, bloody, grim, darkly humorous in spots and brutally sadistic in others. Giesbrecht’s lyrical prose puts you on the grime covered streets of Elendhaven stalking prey alongside its human and inhuman monsters, and for a brief 159 pages you can become totally immersed in the wretched industrial city reminiscent of a frozen version of Jack the Ripper’s London. Possibly one of the best books I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year and definitely worth a look. (5 / 5)
A Pilgrimage of Swords, a Book Review
A Pilgrimage of Swords (2019) is the first novel of a grimdark fantasy series (The Seven Swords) authored by Anthony Ryan.
A Pilgrimage of Swords (2019) is the first novel of a grimdark fantasy series (The Seven Swords) authored by Anthony Ryan. The book is technically a novella, running slightly short of a novel-length, but reads like a collection of short stories. This review will cover Subterranean Press’ digital copy of the novella.
Desperate to change his fate, Pilgrim forfeits his name on his quest to meet a mad god. He and his fellow pilgrims travel a dangerous road filled with abominations and horrors in the desperate hope that they might have one prayer answered. With a twisted sentient sword, he fights his darkness and the God’s abominations in the hopes of something better.
What I Liked
As mentioned, this novella reads like a collection of short stories. Each story tackles a specific challenge and region. The strategy works well in building the torment of the journey and keeping the reader consistently engaged.
A voice plagues Pilgrim, constantly antagonizing him at every step of their journey. The style in which this “voice” delivers their intrusive thoughts, while not inherently unique, remains an enjoyable and satisfying read. The voice itself becomes a favored character of mine. Pilgrim and “voice” share a dynamic of brooding hero and antagonizer. Again, not unique, but done with great effect.
Despite the tight word count, several twists effectively engage the reader, helping to add to the world that we only get a glimpse of.
While the supporting cast doesn’t have as much time dedicated to them, they collectively add to the experience with unique perspectives and dynamics.
In terms of horror, the final chapter provides the most stunning examples. This review is spoiler-free, but the build-up certainly exceeds expectations for the first read.
Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings
A Pilgrimage of Swords resides on the lighter side of grimdark high fantasy, but it remains grimdark. The world of A Pilgrimage of Swords is uncaring and cruel, producing characters that reflect that, functioning as opportunists.
Animals do die, and children are equally prone to potential death. Again, not entirely out of character for the setting, but it should be mentioned for readerly consideration.
As the description might indicate, torment and suffering are recurring motifs in the story. While the tortures certainly are sadistic, readers get the aftermath. The novel doesn’t linger in its sadism.
What I Dislike, or Food for Thought
As A Pilgrimage of Swords is a high fantasy novel with light grimdark elements, the horror reflects that concept. There are tense moments, and characters are prone to danger, but genuine horror remains lacking. The novel doesn’t claim itself as such, but our audience should consider this. However, walking gods of madness twisting their environment to reflect their psyche shouldn’t be ridden off too quickly.
While I mostly enjoy the brevity of the story and how the chapters read like short stories, it limits the time we have to invest in the characters and setting. This novel is the first of a continuing series, so this criticism doesn’t inherently apply to the other novels. This first introduction remains easy to recommend for those looking for a quick read, not a long investment.
Many plot beats are predictable and can somewhat underwhelm a reader when the obvious thing happens. I will admit that this isn’t too often a hindrance but compromises to accommodate the tighter word count. Luckily, there are plot twists to minimize this underwhelming predictability, but the chapters could still utilize an extended word count.
The name doesn’t exactly fit this first entry of the series. It might be a perfect name for the series, but this novel’s pilgrimage has little to do with swords.
A Pilgrimage of Swords has a few haunting moments but is an otherwise enjoyable and quick read. If a grimdark set in a high fantasy where cruel gods walk the earth sounds like an interest of yours, this will certainly satisfy that itch. While it remains a little too brief, this is by design and part of a larger narrative.
(4 / 5)
Horror in graphic novels
Creepy Comics Collages by Jennifer Weigel, Part 5
Well, you won’t get rid of me that easily… Ha ha, I lied about coming to the end and the afterlife in the Creepy Comics Collages segment, it was just an opportunity for rebirth. Besides, it’s World Collage Day! So having come into another comic book to rework, here we go again…
Creepy Comics Story 9: The Voice (of God or Reason or perhaps an homage to my ex)
“Come to me my children, the voice of God awaits!… Don’t let them escape!” Please beam me up out of this weird comic collage alternate reality. “God I am your hand! Lift me… to your place. I commend my spirit!” I want to go back to dreaming about starfish.
The computer programmer behind the scenes turns to face us and smiles. “Guardians! This is a place of God!… Come to the true voice of God!” “I am everything.” “Come to the voice!” And the horrific AI generated creatures abide by his every coded word.
Just like last night in the — signs posted for Nightmare, No Exit. The deer spirit faun screams in surprise, “Eeek!” “No! I defy you!” She returns to the form of a little girl with arms outspread to the open sky. “Y’know, a day like today makes all the stuff that happened last night seem just like a bad dream!” The dream seems so real…
Somewhere in the city, the computer programmer sits up at night in pensive monologue, “You try to make a difference… But it doesn’t really matter.”
Creepy Comics Story 10: The City (Metropolis becomes self-aware)
This segment is brought to you by Dead Artists and Talking Dinosaurs. No really, wait for it…
Woooooo Uhhhh Wooooooo Uhhhh… Wump! Uff! Wump! Uff! “She belongs to The City!” The Glenn Fry 1985 hit single looms ominously overhead as Metropolis becomes self-aware. “The City… will live!… The City… will breathe!” The City gasps for air, “Got to… breathe!… Got to… Breathe!“
Her breath is the wind… Her eyes are windows. Her heart pumps fluid through buried plumbing… “I’m The City!” Her mind is The City!
And we have a celebrity appearance by Rich Koz “Son of Svengoolie” WFLD 1973: “I take a nap for 10,000 years and look what happens… some-body builds a city!” Kerwyn chimes in, “Geez! Somebody’s been busy!” And we cut out to a scene of Svengoolie standing alongside his coffin.
Well, that’s all folks. Or is it? For now, any way… until I get more comic books… Duh duh DUHHHH…
If you want to see more art, check out more of Jennifer Weigel’s work here on Haunted MTL or on her writing, fine art, and conceptual projects websites.
Dread Nation, a book review
Imagine if you will, a world in which the Battle of Gettysburg wasn’t just the end of the American Civil War. But that it was also the start of a zombie apocalypse. We’ve now entered the world of Dread Nation.
Written by Justine Ireland and published in 2018, Dread Nation is an alternate-history horror novel that considers what our nation might have looked like if zombies had risen at the actual battle of Gettysburg. What results is a dark, twisted, entertaining novel that is truer to reality than it should be.
Our main character is Jane McKeene, the black daughter of a plantation owner’s wife. She has a fairly comfortable childhood, being raised by her mother and the other women on the plantation as an adored and willful child.
Outside of her family’s plantation, horrors abound. There is the grotesque living dead, of course. But there is also raging racism that leads the leaders of America to do horrifying, monstrous things. Things like taking black and Indigenous children from their families and placing them into schools designed to train them to fight the living dead.
I feel like it would be irresponsible to note here that schools intended to indoctrinate Indigenous children were a very real thing. Children were taken from their families and forced to assimilate into a WASP way of life. They were taught to be servants and told to be grateful for the opportunity. That’s scary enough without zombies, frankly.
By the time Jane is old enough to be taken, there is hope that the zombies are under control. Cities, like Baltimore, are up and running. The well-to-do attend theater and lectures and even bask in electric light.
Under control, of course, is a fragile concept.
Jane is sent to Miss Preston’s School of Combat. The girls there are told they’re being trained to be Attendants. Their life will be one of servitude, to stand near wealthy white women and protect them in case of a zombie attack. Jane seems like she’s going to have a decent future. She’s good at her lessons, and good at killing the dead. She’s less good at following the rules. She gets in trouble for sneaking out at night, getting newspapers, and not minding her etiquette lessons.
Worse, she’s often compared unfavorably to Katherine, a classmate who cannot do wrong. She’s an elegant young woman, but perhaps too pretty for her good. She’s refused several Attendant jobs because women find her too pretty to be around their husbands.
When Jane discovers a secret about Baltimore that the mayor would rather no one else know, she and Katherine are thrown on a train and sent to a frontier town far out west, called Summerland. Summerland is run by a racist preacher and his hateful son, who happens to be the sheriff. Jane has to get herself and Katherine out of the town before they’re both killed, either by the living dead or the racist leaders.
This novel was a delightful blend of zombie story and alternate history. And it manages to do justice to both genres.
On the historical side, there are all sorts of delightful details that are just a little wrong. Just a little different than our Civil War buffs will remember. It feels like this world is just a step away from ours, as if we were to trip in our world we might fall right into this one.
It’s the zombie story part though, that of course had my attention. And it should surprise no one that this part was fantastic. The dead are always creeping nearby, always a threat. The simplest actions have to be adjusted because the dead are always there.
What makes a zombie story good, though, is how the living responds to the threat. Who becomes a hero, and who becomes a monster? This is the real attraction to a zombie story. And it’s deeply and richly explored in Dread Nation.
This is the sort of book that is perfectly written, and by the only person who could have done it. Justina Ireland is from Pennsylvania, like me. You don’t grow up in Pennsylvania without understanding Gettysburg. The blood from that battle sunk into the land we were raised on. It’s in our very essence. And of course, Pittsburgh is the home of zombie stories. Ireland picks up the traditions of Romero and does the old man very proud.
Dread Nation is exciting and infuriating. It has enough twists to keep you guessing and just a little touch of magic. It’s honestly the best book I’ve read so far this year.
I will tell you that the story ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Fortunately, the sequel, Deathless Divide, is already out. So if you’re going to read Dread Nation, which I highly suggest, make sure you have the second one close at hand.